TxDOT hands out cash bonuses during hiring freeze and cries of no money

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Exclusive Investigation: You’re Paying For State’s Big Bonuses
By Brian Collister
San Antonio
February 14, 2008

Hiring freezes, cuts in services and increased fees. Those are just a few of the steps state agencies are taking, claiming they are strapped for cash. Wait until you find out what they do have money for.

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News 4 Trouble Shooter Brian Collister is breaking the story of how millions of your tax dollars are going into the pockets of state employees.

In the very near future stretches of highway in our area will be toll roads. That’s because TXDOT says it does not have the money for new road projects, but we found that TXDOT and others state agencies apparently have enough of your money to give out big cash bonuses.

State senators scold TXDOT officials at a hearing in Austin last week over the agency’s budget shortfall and claim it needs to build toll roads because it does not have enough money.

Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo), who sits on the Senate Finance Committee, said last week, “I have to tell you that the impression out there is that, really, this is a ploy to put pressure on us to go back to the toll road plan, and that’s just the political reality of it.”

We’ve uncovered that TXDOT has enough money to give more than $1 million in bonuses to employees in the past three years. That includes top management. We got our hands on these state documents, that show before he retired last August, TXDOT Director Michael Behrens gave several of his top managers cash bonuses ranging from $2,000 to $3,000 each.

Terri Hall with the San Antonio Toll Party said, “I think it’s completely wrong. It’s outrageous. It shows they have a really bad case of of misplace priorities.” Priorities that toll road opponents say should be aimed at saving every penny for new roads.

“This really just highlights everything that’s wrong at TXDOT,” said Hall. “They’re giving hand-outs to top management while everyone out here is suffering.”

TXDOT defends the bonuses saying it is only one half of one percent of its budget and that it needs to reward and retain its best employees, adding that money would not prevent the need for toll roads.

TXDOT is not the only state agency claiming it does not have enough money. After the governor asked all state agencies last year to cut their budget by 10%, budget shortfalls have forced state parks to close, Child Protective Services says it need more staff, but cannot afford to hire them, and cuts to public colleges means tuition rate hikes.

That’s why what we uncovered in these records from the Comptrollers Office is even more disturbing. The list includes every cash bonus given to every state employee in the past three years. It also reveals that state agencies combined have given nearly $75 million of your money in bonuses.

The money went to state employees like Dimitria Pope, who until this week was the acting head of the scandal-plagued Texas Youth Commission. She has been criticized for her handling of that agency, including spending thousands on new office furniture. Last April, while the agency’s chief of staff, she got a nearly $14,000 bonus on top of her $88,000 dollar a year salary. TYC says it gave her the bonus to bring her salary more in line with what the position pays.

George Ferrie, the Director of Compliance at Licensing and Regulation got three bonuses totaling $13,000 in just over a year, on top of nearly $80,000 salary. The agency says he was rewarded for taking on more responsibilities, and this is just one example of their efforts to properly reward and compensate its employees for outstanding performance.

When it comes to handing out bonuses to top managers, Attorney General Greg Abbott’s office tops the list. Abbott gave $493,000 in bonuses to 142 of its directors. The agency says the money comes from unexpended salaries from vacant positions, and these directors shoulder the weight of added responsibilities.

Senator Carlos Uresti thinks these bonuses are out of line. Because of our investigation, he’s asking the state auditor to look into it.

Uresti told us Wednesday, “What we’re going to ask the state auditors office is to look into not only TXDOT, but all the agencies as a whole, to be sure that if they’re awarding these bonuses that they are applied consistently, they are reasonable and it’s fair.”These bonuses were created to help agencies keep employees in difficult jobs that have a high turnover rate, and we did find some doing just that. We’ll be sure to let you know what happens when the state auditor looks at these bonuses.